Opinion: Poisoned milkshakes? No free sandwiches? Police persecution complex is real — and dangerous


If your typical American consumer got sick after drinking a Shake Shack milkshake tainted with a bleach-based cleaning solution, she would be rightfully upset.

If that consumer then accused Shake Shack employees of “intentionally poisoning” her, publicly decrying that she “cannot even take meal [sic] without coming under attack,” she would almost certainly be considered paranoid — if not outright delusional.

But for the typical American police union? Paranoia is beginning to seem par for the course. On Monday night, two NYPD unions — the New York Police Benevolent Association and the Detectives’ Endowment Association — issued statements alleging that three New York police officers had been intentionally poisoned at Shake Shack. The NYCPBA tweeted a statement (since deleted) from its president, Patrick J. Lynch, claiming that the officers “discovered a toxic substance, believed to be bleach, had been placed in their beverages.” If the intent-assigning diction of “placed” didn’t clue you in, Lynch and the PBA made it even more obvious: “When NYC police officers cannot even take meal without coming under attack, it is clear that environment in which we work has deteriorated to a critical level. We cannot afford to let our guard down for even a moment.”


Meanwhile, the detectives association’s president released a statement alleging that “Police in New York City and across the country are under attack by vicious criminals who dislike us simply because of the uniform we wear.… Emboldened by pandering elected officials, these cowards will go to great lengths to harm any member of law enforcement.”

The us-vs-them, warriors-under-assault party line couldn’t have been clearer.

In a not-so-shocking twist, however, these claims turned out to be false. The NYPD’s own investigation cleared the Shake Shack employees of any criminality Tuesday morning. The bleach was more likely part of a cleaning solution that had been improperly removed from the milkshake machine.

Sloppy consumer protection? Sure. Subpar food safety practices? Yeah, that too. A conspiracy to attack cops? Not in the slightest.

And yet the police unions’ fast food-focused fragility felt pretty… familiar. Over the past few months, headlines about cops getting erroneously mad at restaurants have become surprisingly common. Like the cop who accused a fast food worker of taking a bite out of his McChicken because he “forgot” he’d taken the bite himself. Or the cops who threatened to boycott a Philly sandwich shop for the dire sin of not giving officers free lunch. Or the cop who lied about a McDonald’s worker writing “f---- pig” on his coffee cup.

While these stories might seem merely stupid, and embarrassing for the officers in question (which, to be clear, they are), this apparent police obsession with the imagined specter of an antifa fast food worker is a sign of a much deeper problem. As police brutality has become a more mainstream source of outrage over the past few years, police have increasingly closed ranks. “Blue Lives Matter,” “Back the Blue,” and “thin blue line” imagery all have their roots in the same idea: The world is full of dangerous, cop-hating criminals, and the poor, persecuted police officers are the only thing standing between order and chaos.

What’s so dangerous about these slogans (and, indeed, about the frequent police accusations against restaurants) is how they encourage cops to interact with the rest of the world. Everything from the increase in SWAT usage of tanks and machine guns to warrior-style training that teaches cops they need to either kill or be killed is rooted in the idea that police are always under attack. Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, wrote about law enforcement’s “warrior problem” for the Harvard Law Review, arguing that this warrior mindset is both common and destructive. Stoughton cites a 2010 article from Police One (a site offering police training, news, and career services) that recommends police “remain humble and compassionate; be professional and courteous — and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Stoughton argues that this mindset “creates a substantial, if invisible, barrier to true community policing,” concluding that “the assertive manner in which officers set the tone of encounter can also set the stage for a negative response or a violent interaction that was, from the start, avoidable.”


The same paranoia that leads a police officer to assume he’s been poisoned by a milkshake can lead him to needlessly escalate encounters with civilians. And as we’ve seen all too often, needless escalation can have tragic consequences. These stories aren’t frivolous; they’re an illustration of how deep and pervasive the toxic police persecution mindset can be.

Excessive police violence isn’t going to end as long as too many law enforcement agencies are peopled with or led by fragile, skittish warrior-wannabes who have deadly weapons, qualified immunity and the knee-jerk assumption that the people they’re meant to serve and protect — especially Black people — are trying to kill them. Until then? It’s a lucky break when the only victim of police paranoia is a burger chain’s reputation.